Viking raid warfare and tactics

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Vikings were members of tribes, originally from Scandinavia, of Norse ancestry, who gained a reputation for their raids and piracy in many parts of Europe, especially England, Ireland, and Frankish territories.[1] The term "Viking Age" refers to the period roughly from 793 AD to the late 11th-century in Europe. In this era Viking activity started with raids on Christian lands in England and eventually expanded to mainland Europe, including parts of present-day Russia.[2] While maritime battles were rare, Viking bands proved very successful in raiding coastal towns and monasteries due to their efficient ships, intimidating war-tactics, skilful hand-to-hand combat, and fearlessness.[3][need quotation to verify] What started as Viking raids on small towns transformed into the establishment of important agricultural spaces and commercial trading-hubs across Europe through rudimentary[citation needed] colonization.[4] Vikings' tactics in warfare gave them an enormous advantage in successfully raiding (and later colonizing) despite their small population in comparison to that of their enemies.

Culture of war

The tactics and warfare of the Vikings were driven by their cultural ideologies. Vikings, according to Clare Downham in Viking Kings of Britain in Ireland, are, "people of Scandinavian culture who were active outside Scandinavia… Danes, Norwegians, Swedes, Hiberno-Scandinavians[disambiguation needed], Anglo-Scandinavians[disambiguation needed] or the inhabitants of any Scandinavian colony who affiliated themselves more strongly with the culture of the coloniser than with that of the indigenous population."[5]

Viking war culture and ideologies are rooted in Norse culture as recalled by Icelandic sagas. In the early Viking Age during the late 8th century and most of the 9th, Vikings consisted of smaller tribal bands with a lack of central authority. Violence was used as a measure to moderate disputes rooted in honor, a pagan Norse belief. This emphasis on violence as a decisive tool regarding disputes was not limited to a man, but extended to a man's kin.[6] Violence was seen as a measure to defend honor. Honor was extremely important to Norsemen, and the sense of shaming one's honor extended beyond physical and material injuries. Honor could be shamed from mere insults, where Norsemen were expected to react with violence often resulting in death. Thus, with this prevalence of violence came the expectation of fearlessness.[7]

Norsemen believed that the time of death for any individual is predetermined, however nothing else in life was. Considering this, Norsemen believed there to be two possibilities in life: "success with its attendant fame; or death."[8] The necessity of defending honor with violence, along with the belief that time of death was preordained, adventure and fearlessness were core values to the Viking Age.[9] These principle values and ideologies were displayed in the tactics of Viking raids and warfare.

Raids

The Vikings from Scandinavia were born into a seafaring culture. With the Atlantic Ocean to the West, as well as the Baltic and North Sea bordering the southern borders of Scandinavia, seafaring proved to be the means of communication for Scandinavians.[10] In Northern Europe at the start of the 8th Century Vikings began raiding coasts of the British Isles across the sea from Scandinavia, particularly monasteries. These monasteries carried a great deal of valuable treasures. The first known raid was on the Holy Island of Lindisfarne off the English coast in 793. These raids continued for the entirety of the Viking Age. These initial raids had a religious implication to them. Vikings would target monasteries along the coast, raid the towns for their booty, and destroy what was left. This caused mass fear amongst such monks, as they felt that it was punishment from God.[11]

Viking raids in the late 8th century through to the early 10th century consisted of "hit-and-run" style raids that would bring riches back to their respective lands. However, due to the technical success of their shipbuilding, they were able to transform such raids into settlements. Viking ships made possible traversing rivers such as the Thames in England, The Volga in Russian territory, and The Loire in Frankish territory. In the years 814-820, Danish Vikings repeatedly sacked the regions of Northwestern France via the Seine River, and also repeatedly sacked monasteries in the Bay of Biscay via the Loire River. Eventually, the Vikings settled into these areas and lived off agrarian production. This was mainly due to Rollo The Pirate, a Viking leader who seized what is now Normandy in 879, and formally in 911 when Charles III of Western Francia granted him Lower Seine.[12] This became a precursor to the Viking expansion that established important trade posts and agrarian settlements deep into Frankish territory, English territory, and much of what is now European Russian territory.[13] The Vikings were also able to establish an extended period of economic and political rule of much of Ireland, England, and Scotland during the Norse Ivarr Dynasty that started in the late 9th century and lasting until 1094.[14]

Warships

Expansion of Viking settlements in the 9th and 10th centuries was due to exploration of rivers. The ships used by these Norsemen were essential to this exploration and allowed expansion and colonization. The traditional Viking ship is believed to be a Gokstad ship. It was close to twenty-eight meters long and five meters wide. These long narrow ships could accommodate 50-60 seamen who powered the ship by rowing. They were built from strong oak, and split with axes so the grain in between the ships planks meshed together. There was a relatively short mast that was used for gathering speed rather than steering, this was instead accomplished with a single rudder in the stern. These boats are known to draft close to a meter of water.[15] Adaptations of these long ships were built with a deeper hull for transporting goods, but what they added in hull depth and durability they sacrificed in speed and mobility.

The design of these ships proved to be extremely fast. Their build was not designed for battle at sea, as they would be no match for slower, but more powerful English vessels. Due to the low-lying hull, Viking ships could land directly on sandy beaches rather than docking in well-fortified harbors.[16] The low mast, built for speed when the winds were favorable, could easily pass under bridges often erected in rivers.[17] These masts were designed to maneuver under the fortified bridges that Charles the Bald of West Francia created from 848-877.[18]

Seafaring military strategies

The fast design of Viking ships was essential to their hit-and-run raids. For instance, in the sacking of Frisia in the early 9th Century, Charlemagne mobilized his troops the instant he heard of the raid, but completely missed the Vikings when he arrived.[19] The Viking's ships gave them an element of surprise. Often traveling in small packs, or bands, they could easily go undetected, swiftly enter a village or monastery, pillage and collect booty, and leave before reinforcements arrived.[20] Vikings understood the advantages of the long ships’ mobility, and used them to a great extent. Viking fleets would often sail past the horizon of a bay they planned to raid as they traveled up a coast from one town to the next. This allowed them to stay out of sight in their small bands. They would often lower the mast in these occasions to avoid detection.[21]

Viking fleets of over a hundred ships did occur, but often these fleets had little to no cohesion, being composed of smaller fleets led by numerous chieftains or different Norse band. This was most often seen in the Francia raids between 841 and 892. They can be attributed to the fact that it was during this time that the Frankish aristocracy began paying off Vikings and buying mercenaries in return for protection from Viking raids. Thus, there appeared rudimentary structures of Viking armies.[22]

Viking raids often lacked formation. They have been described as "bees swarming." However, what they lacked in formation they made up with communication. This naturalistic sense of unconventional warfare is rooted in their lack of organized leadership. These small fleets communicated effectively and made it difficult for English and Frankish territories to counter these foreign tactics. Sprague compares these tactics to those of contemporary western Special Forces soldiers who, "attack in small units with specific objectives."[23]

While naval Viking battles are not as common as battles on land, they did occur. Viking ships would often try and ram ships in the open sea. They would propel the boats by rowing fast directly at defending ships that were vulnerable and isolated from their fleet. To combat this, defending fleets would raft up with the bows of their boats facing the attacking Vikings. Depending on the size of the defending fleet, The Viking ships allowed them to maneuver their boats by rowing around such ships to flank them. When they got close enough, Vikings would throw spears and use their longbows. Archers would be positioned in the back of the ships protected by a shield wall formation constructed in the front of the ship.[24] Vikings attacked ships, not with the intent to destroy them, but rather to board them and take control. This is because Vikings originally based their battles around economic gains rather than political or territorial gains.[25] Most of these battles took place with other Viking fleets, as they had little to fear from European countries invading the inhospitable regions of Scandinavia. Rather, many naval battles were fought amongst Vikings, "Dane against Norwegian, Swede against Norwegian, Swede against Dane."[26]

Battle tactics on land

Sagas of Viking Age often mention beserkers. These fabled Viking warriors are said to have spiritual magical powers that allowed them to become impervious to injuries on the battlefield.[27] While these stories are exaggerated, the term beserks is rooted in truths about Viking warriors who were able to enter an intense, trance-like state whereupon they would "engage in reckless fighting."[28] These warriors were greatly feared by Christians in Frankish and English regions who viewed such men as satanic. Vikings would beach their ships on land, where their battle tactics contained elements of surprise. "Vikings were notorious for laying ambushes and using woods to lay in await for armies approaching along established roads."[29] If confronted by legitimate forces in raids, Vikings would create a wedge formation, with their best men, or beserkers, at the front of this wedge. They would throw spears, and rush this wedge through enemy lines where they could engage in hand-to-hand combat, which was their forte.[30] Viking's military tactics succeeded mainly because they ignored common battlefield tactics, methods, and customs of the time. They ignored the unspoken rules of warfare giving holy sites immunity, and they would never arrange battle times. To Vikings, deceit, stealth, and ruthlessness were not seen as cowardly. They were able to excel in the battlefield and in raids because of the fact that they ignored all European standards of war.[31]

Common weapons

Battle axe

The battle axe was most popular amongst Norsemen in the Viking Age. It was commonly used for agricultural purposes, as well as shipbuilding, and eventually adapted for use in Viking raids.[32] Axes varied in size from small handheld axes called broadaxes that could be used both for raids and in farming, to Danish Axes that were well over a meter in length.[33] These axes had a wooden shaft, with a large, curved iron blade. They required less swinging power than expected, as the large bladed heads allowed gravity and momentum to do most of the work.[34] The axe had points on each tip of the blade where the curve tapered off. This allowed the axe to be used to hook an opponent, while also doubling as a thrusting weapon.[35]

The axe was psychologically intimidating to the people of Christian territories the Vikings sacked. King Magnus of Norway, inherited his axe from his patron saint father, Olav Haraldsson[disambiguation needed]. He named this axe Hel, the name of the Norse goddess of death. Christians associated this name to the word Hell. The axe of Magnus is still portrayed in the Norwegian Coat of Arms.[36]

Sword

Viking Age swords were just as common in battle and raids as axes.[dubious ] While there were many variations of swords, the Vikings used double-edged swords, often with blades 90 centimeters in length and 15 centimeters in width.[37] These swords were designed for slashing and cutting, rather than thrusting, so the blades were carefully sharpened while the tip was often left relatively dull.[38]

A sword was considered a personal object amongst Vikings. Warriors would name their swords, as they felt such objects guarding their lives deserved identities.[39] A Sword, depending on the make, often was associated with prestige and value due to the importance of honor in the Viking Age.

Spear

While not as prevalent as swords and battle axes, spears were commonly used in the Viking Age. These spears were inexpensive and effective. The length of the wooden handle of such spears was between two and three meters. There were two types of spears; one was made for throwing while the other was generally used for thrusting. The handles of these were the same, but the tips of throwing spears were roughly thirty centimeters while the thrusting speaks were close to sixty.[40] More often than not, spears were used as projectile weapons, in the occasional naval fight, as well as during raids on shore and in battle. This was in part due to the Norsemen’s natural height and build, being much taller and bigger than Frankish and English men at the time.[41]

References

  1. Abels, Richard. "Alfred the Great and Æthelred II 'the Unready": The Viking Wars in England, C. 850-1016." Vikings Revised (2009): n. pag. United States Naval Academy. United States Naval Academy Press, 20 July 2009. Web. 16 Nov. 2014.
  2. Sprague, Martina. Norse Warfare: The Unconventional Battle Strategies of the Ancient Vikings. New York: Hippocrene, 2007. Print, pg. 10.
  3. Fissulo, David F. Medieval Scandinavia: Overview of Viking Warfare. Great Neck: Great Neck, n.d. Ebsco Host. Great Neck Publishing, 2011. Web. 16 Nov. 2014.
  4. Fissulo, Medieval Scandinavia: Overview of Viking Warfare, 16 Nov. 2014.
  5. Downham, Clare. Viking Kings of Britain and Ireland the Dynasty of Ívarr to A.D. 1014. Edinburgh: Dunedin Academic, 2008. Print, pg xv.
  6. Short, William Rhuel. Icelanders in the Viking Age: The People of the Sagas. Jefferson, NC: McFarland, 2010. Print, pg. 41, 42.
  7. Short, Icelanders in the Viking Age: The People of the Sagas, pg. 40-44.
  8. Short, Icelanders in the Viking Age: The People of the Sagas, pg. 42.
  9. Short, Icelanders in the Viking Age: The People of the Sagas, ibid.
  10. Fasulo, David F. Medieval Scandinavia: Overview of Viking Shipbuilding. Great Neck: Great Neck, n.d. Ebsco Host. Great Neck Publishing, 2011. Web. 15 Nov. 2014.
  11. Sprague, Norse Warfare: The Unconventional Battle Strategies of the Ancient Vikings, pg. 10-11.
  12. Sprague, Norse Warfare: The Unconventional Battle Strategies of the Ancient Vikings, pg. 13-15.
  13. Abels, Richard. "Alfred the Great and Æthelred II 'the Unready": The Viking Wars in England, C. 850-1016." Vikings Revised
  14. Taylor, Simon, Garreth Williams, B.E Crawford, and Beverly Ballin Smith. West Over Sea: Studies in Scandinavian Sea-borne Expansion and Settlement Before 1300: A Festschrift in Honour of Dr Barbara Crawford. Leiden: In the Northern World, 2007, pg. 39.
  15. DeVries, Kelly Robert, and Robert Douglas Smith. Medieval Military Technology, Second Edition. Toronto: U of Toronto, 2012. Google Books. 1 May 2012. Web. 17 Nov. 2014, pg 291-292.
  16. Fasulo, David F. Medieval Scandinavia: Overview of Viking Shipbuilding. 15 Nov. 2014.
  17. Bruun, Per. "The Viking Ship." Journal of Coastal Research 13.4 (1997): 1282-289. JSTOR. Web. 18 Nov. 2014. http://www.jstor.org/stable/10.2307/4298737?ref=no-x-route:22930a4bd5b84a6dae07e9fac7ca9a20, pg. 1286.
  18. Abels, Richard. "Alfred the Great and Æthelred II 'the Unready": The Viking Wars in England, C. 850-1016." Vikings Revised.
  19. Winroth, Anders. "The Age of the Vikings." Winroth, A.: The Age of the Vikings (eBook and Hardcover). Princeton University Press, 1 Sept. 2014. Web. 17 Nov. 2014, pg 71.
  20. Winroth, Anders. "The Age of the Vikings." Winroth, A.: The Age of the Vikings. 17 Nov. 2014, pg. 72-73.
  21. Sprague, Norse Warfare: The Unconventional Battle Strategies of the Ancient Vikings, pg. 26.
  22. Abels, Richard. "Alfred the Great and Æthelred II 'the Unready": The Viking Wars in England, C. 850-1016." Vikings Revised.
  23. Sprague, Norse Warfare: The Unconventional Battle Strategies of the Ancient Vikings, 27.
  24. Sprague, Norse Warfare: The Unconventional Battle Strategies of the Ancient Vikings, 144.
  25. Abels, Richard. "Alfred the Great and Æthelred II 'the Unready": The Viking Wars in England, C. 850-1016." Vikings Revised.
  26. Sprague, Norse Warfare: The Unconventional Battle Strategies of the Ancient Vikings, 174.
  27. Short, Icelanders in the Viking Age: The People of the Sagas, 55.
  28. Fissulo, Medieval Scandinavia: Overview of Viking Warfare, 16 Nov. 2014.
  29. Abels, Richard. "Alfred the Great and Æthelred II 'the Unready": The Viking Wars in England, C. 850-1016." Vikings Revised.
  30. Abels, Richard. "Alfred the Great and Æthelred II 'the Unready": The Viking Wars in England, C. 850-1016." Vikings Revised.
  31. Sprague, Norse Warfare: The Unconventional Battle Strategies of the Ancient Vikings, 374.
  32. Fissulo, Medieval Scandinavia: Overview of Viking Warfare, 16 Nov. 2014.
  33. Sprague, Norse Warfare: The Unconventional Battle Strategies of the Ancient Vikings, 148.
  34. Winroth, Anders. "The Age of the Vikings." Winroth, A.: The Age of the Vikings. 17 Nov. 2014, pg. 26.
  35. Short, Icelanders in the Viking Age: The People of the Sagas, 50.
  36. Winroth, Anders. "The Age of the Vikings." Winroth, A.: The Age of the Vikings. 17 Nov. 2014, pg. 26.
  37. Fissulo, Medieval Scandinavia: Overview of Viking Warfare, 16 Nov. 2014.
  38. Sprague, Norse Warfare: The Unconventional Battle Strategies of the Ancient Vikings, 145.
  39. Sprague, Norse Warfare: The Unconventional Battle Strategies of the Ancient Vikings, 139-140.
  40. Fissulo, Medieval Scandinavia: Overview of Viking Warfare, 16 Nov. 2014.
  41. Sprague, Norse Warfare: The Unconventional Battle Strategies of the Ancient Vikings, ibid.

Sources

  • Abels, Richard. "Alfred the Great and Æthelred II 'the Unready": The Viking Wars in England, C. 850-1016." Vikings Revised (2009): n. pag. United States Naval Academy. United States Naval Academy Press, 20 July 2009. Web. 16 Nov. 2014.
  • Bruun, Per. "The Viking Ship." Journal of Coastal Research 13.4 (1997): 1282-289. JSTOR. Web. 18 Nov. 2014. <http://www.jstor.org/stable/10.2307/4298737?ref=no-x-route:22930a4bd5b84a6dae07e9fac7ca9a20>.
  • DeVries, Kelly Robert, and Robert Douglas Smith. Medieval Military Technology, Second Edition. Toronto: U of Toronto, 2012. Google Books. 1 May 2012. Web. 17 Nov. 2014.
  • Fasulo, David F. Medieval Scandinavia: Overview of Viking Shipbuilding. Great Neck: Great Neck, n.d. Ebsco Host. Great Neck Publishing, 2011. Web. 15 Nov. 2014.
  • Fasulo, David F. Medieval Scandinavia: Overview of Viking Warfare. Great Neck: Great Neck, n.d. Ebsco Host. Great Neck Publishing, 2011. Web. 16 Nov. 2014.
  • Short, William Rhuel. Icelanders in the Viking Age: The People of the Sagas. Jefferson, NC: McFarland, 2010. Print.
  • Sprague, Martina. Norse Warfare: The Unconventional Battle Strategies of the Ancient Vikings. New York: Hippocrene, 2007. Print.
  • Taylor, Simon, Garreth Williams, B.E Crawford, and Beverly Ballin Smith. West Over Sea : Studies in Scandinavian Sea-borne Expansion and Settlement Before 1300: A Festschrift in Honour of Dr Barbara Crawford. Leiden: In the Northern World, 2007. Print.
  • Winroth, Anders. "The Age of the Vikings." Winroth, A.: The Age of the Vikings (eBook and Hardcover). Princeton University Press, 1 Sept. 2014. Web. 17 Nov. 2014.